I've just started as postdoctoral researcher at a great institute. I imagine that they expect me to achieve good results and teach some classes.

But honestly, I feel that I still need to learn a lot more on many topics. So, is it a good idea to dedicate a few hours of my day to learn new topics? Or should I focus only on what I already know and on how to apply it in order to obtain more results?

It is a new stage of my life and any tip that may improve me as a researcher is very welcomed.

  • 1
    You might want to check out the following: What is expected of a postdoc? – Mad Jack Apr 9 '17 at 16:15
  • 9
    I feel that I still need to learn a lot more on many topics — Me too! After all, I've only been doing research for 25 years. With any luck, that feeling will never go away. – JeffE Apr 9 '17 at 22:13
  • @JeffE haha! Fine! Well, of course this feeling is the reason why one keeps learning and pursuing the truth. So, we may say that it is vital. On the other hand, when you've just finished your PhD, this feeling becomes fear and then you start to doubt your entire formation. Seems that everyone knows all the things and you know nothing. That's the problem. Thanks for the comment! – Just a Guy Apr 9 '17 at 23:54

While "learning new subjects" vs "focus on applying what I know" may sound like a dichotomy at first it really need not to be one: Try to apply the things you know to new problems and learn what you need to learn to do this successfully.

Put differently: Learn new things more focused on the problems you are facing. It is really rare that you encounter a problem that you can solve by just applying what you know. In most cases, the actual problem at hand has some new structure that can be exploited in some way and this usually forces you to read up something new.

On the other hand, it can not hurt if you learn some things that are not totally related to your current research just to broaden you expertise. I do this when I got stuck on my problems and, coincidentally, it happens frequently that I stumble upon just the right thing to help me with my current problem.

  • thank you for the nice answer. It fits perfectly to my case since I'm a mathematician. – Just a Guy Apr 11 '17 at 12:19

There is absolutely nothing wrong to dedicate a good fragment of your time to learn new things. Science is a dynamical thing and at some point you will be forced to learn new things/techniques etc (depending your field). PhD makes you master a rather small and specific area but to be a truly good researcher you should be able to see the bigger picture.

If you dedicate your time exclusively on the topics you already know then this could be seen as an incremental thing: applying what we know on new things is alright but it doesn't advance science: This needs to design new techniques probably using new tools from unexpected areas.

So, dedicate as much as you can on studying and expanding your knowledge/topics!

  • Thank you @PsySp! I've wondered about splitting my time between learning and thinking of problems related to research. But, since the things are new to me, I had thought that it could be a bad idea. – Just a Guy Apr 9 '17 at 17:17
  • @JustaGuy Ιt's never a bad idea to think of new research problems/directions and learning new topics! Just be careful on how to split ad allocate your time. – PsySp Apr 9 '17 at 17:21

You could do both - learn new topics that interest you as well as applying what you already know to new innovations and discoveries. You may find that the new topics relate to your central discipline - allowing broader applications (I have found this with my own research).

There is nothing wrong with expanding your knowledge - just be mindful of the expectations of outcomes etc from your institution.

Another thing I found very useful is to spend some time developing new skills related to the academic interests (computer languages etc).

  • Thank you, @Saturnus. I'd talked with other researchers and some of them believe that the PhD is the right time to learn things and dedicating time to learn something basic or different is a wasting of time. This is not what I truly believe, but since they were more experienced than me, I had given it some credit. – Just a Guy Apr 9 '17 at 17:12
  • @JustaGuy keep in mind that is their opinion. There are always opportunities to expand your knowledge and skills set. Also, consider that the choice to learn something new is your choice. – user70612 Apr 9 '17 at 17:36

For most people, the postdoc will give the most bang for the buck if your primary focus is on strengthening your publications list.

To do this, additional study may be needed.

If not, and you can spare the time, you could set yourself a cap on what would be a reasonable amount or proportion of time to spend on learning things that are, at the moment, tangential.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.